Science

Space gadgetry and life on the International Space Station

Since the days of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a world leader in the space industry. In the 19 years since 1992, Russia has successfully launched more rockets than any other country in the world. So it’s safe to say that Russia and its cosmonauts plays a very big part in exploring space. To do that, they often rely on technology and gadgets that help them in their everyday work.

What do cosmonauts do in orbit?

Cosmonauts only work on the ISS for a few months at a time. The station, just like a spaceship, consists of modules — compartments measuring 13 feet in diameter by around 50 feet in length. “Each cosmonaut has his own little nook where he sleeps. He attaches his sleeping bag to it and floats in to get some sleep. A laptop and a radio are usually floating nearby so we can quickly contact them,” explains Cosmonaut Valerii Tokarev. ISS missions have concrete goals, i.e. to conduct experiments, steer the ISS clear of space debris, perform maintenance on the station and replace equipment, whenever necessary.

Roskosmos – a Russian, government-owned corporation that supervises space industry – recently launched a new project called Kosmos 360 where Russian Cosmonaut Andrei Borisenko regularly shoots panoramic videos from different ISS modules, talking about their history and explaining their purpose. Viewers can learn about cosmonaut training, flight control and spaceship and rocket design. Videos are available in six languages: Russian, English, Arabic, Spanish, German and French. The first video was published on November 17, 2016 and was the first-ever panoramic video shot from the ISS.

Russian Cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka explains this in the cosmonaut blog: “Space experiments are the foundation of manned space exploration. Every flight we make is an experiment. Expedition members have set targets for their physics, chemistry and biomedical experiments and space exploration experiments.”

Working in space affects the body

During the first few days of flight, in addition to vestibular sensations, changes occur in hemodynamics, i.e. how blood is distributed throughout the body. At first, the face and neck may even visibly swell because of blood rushing to the head. On Earth, the human upper body is not subject to such reactions, which cause discomfort (such as a stuffy nose or swollen face), but these symptoms disappear by days 3–5.

Cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov explains: “We have personal protective gear that we wear for the first week — special suits that don’t allow our muscles to relax. For example, the “Penguin” loading suit looks like a normal flight suit, but it has a lot of rubber parts. This equipment allows us to work our back, hip, calf, arm and shoulder muscles. It’s recommended that the suit be worn at the beginning of the flight, but some prefer to wear them throughout. During my first flight, I didn’t wear it very often because it made me feel really hot.”

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NASA Astronaut Terry Virts in the Penguin suit on board the ISS

One of this year’s experiments was named Udod and was aimed at preventing hemodynamic compromise on long-distance space flights. Oleg Skripochka told us that his colleague Anatolii Ivanishin and he took turns testing the special Udod mask for sessions lasting from 15 minutes to 2–3 hours. The mask helps study how breathing and blood flow change as respiratory resistance is added during inhalation. If the results of the experiment meet expectations, soon the Udod mask will be used as standard equipment for preventing hemodynamic compromise and training cosmonauts’ breathing muscles.

The Russian crew are also working on a number of experiments in space cardiology. One of them is called Biocard. Cosmonaut Elena Serova says that Biocard is aimed at studying the bioelectrical activity of the heart when exposed to negative pressure in the lower part of the body. The experiment uses an electrocardiogram (ECG), blood pressure cuff and the Chibis-M compression suit, which helps the lower part of the body retain blood, thereby imitating blood circulation on Earth. The suit looks like air-tight pants with straps and a hard shell. Information obtained during the process will help better monitor the circulatory system in microgravity.

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Elena Serova working on the Biocard experiment

Cosmonauts also use the Chibis-M suit several weeks before landing to mitigate the consequences of long-term exposure to zero-gravity conditions and also to prepare the circulatory system for their return to Earth. “In zero gravity, we don’t use our legs at all. Despite the fact that we exercise every day using special equipment, some muscles still atrophy. This is why it is much harder to return to Earth than leave it — the overload is harder to handle,” explains Valerii Tokarev.

Space gadgetry

It makes sense that cosmonauts would use laptops. ThinkPad laptops with Intel® Core™ Duo chips have been used from the 1990s all the way up to the present day. ThinkPad laptops are the only laptops certified to be used on the ISS. This series of laptop can be seen in photographs on ISS blogs and galleries.

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Aleksandr Yurievich Kaleri at work

All cosmonauts have portable laptops. Primary station modules can only be managed with the aid of mobile gadgets that connect to digital panels. The ability to take a laptop to different areas of the ISS permits station commands to be sent not only from the central control room but also from any location equipped with the required interfaces. Using laptops in space is pretty logical — they’re portable and can be easily upgraded or replaced. This approach permits the interior of the station to remain the same for decades by periodically upgrading its mobile gadgetry.

The ISS computerized management system is fairly complex and has a hub-and-spoke layout: it possesses a central computer and a computer terminal system. There are always 16 laptops in operation on the Russian side. These computers are terminals providing access to the central computer or computer terminal system, which possess neither a keyboard nor a screen — the laptop is the interface. There are about 80 laptops in operation on the ISS, most of which use Intel processors. With the exception of emergency equipment and communications panels, almost all ISS management is performed using laptops.

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Radiation, viruses and hackers

In order to pass selection and head into space, a laptop must possess a special certification confirming that it has passed a stringent radiation durability test, seeing as a computer on the ISS receives the same amount of radiation every day as an Earth-bound computer receives in a year. The computers are super-tough too. The latest ThinkPad models can survive a fall from almost six and a half feet and the weight of a 220-lb man. And they’re also tested for off-gassing — it’s important that the computer does not emit chemical elements or fumes while on board the station. “You’d be surprised how many computers survive their spaceflight. I can’t remember one instance where a computer was destroyed by radiation. Of course it effects the equipment’s service life in orbit, but most of the time the problem is due to the same thing as on Earth: the hard drive fails or the software has a bug, and so most of the time we just tell them to reboot it,” NASA Controllers Tyson Tucker and Joe Crawford told us about providing tech support to astronauts from the ground.

In terms of their experience protecting orbiting computers from viruses, which have infected several computers on the ISS, they said: “Each week we send and decompress a new set of virus definitions on the ISS, meaning we work as efficiently as we can. If we see a new virus on the station, we pull the infected computer off the network, isolate it, and figure out what’s wrong. Even if a complete cleaning is required, it’s pretty easy to set up a quarantine. But our IT system was created so that the network on the station and the network on the ground are completely isolated from viruses on the Internet.”

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International Space Station

When asked about the ability of hackers to penetrate ISS systems, the guys said: “The software the ISS runs to interact with the Earth is a common file exchanger. It’d be very hard to get in there. The chances of anyone compromising the station are very small; it’s never happened. And even if it did, the laptops aren’t vital to the running or safekeeping of the station. Laptops transmit notifications to the crew, but the astronauts don’t actively use them every day — Mission Control manages everything for them.”

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